Welcome back to the reread of Servant of the Empire by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts.
So this is the chapter in which there is a lot to worry about with Keyoke. Oh, Keyoke. Read the chapter headings some time. There are CLUES in them.
SUMMARY: Keyoke and his warriors are protecting the genuine silk wagons; thanks to their intelligence from Arakasi, they are expecting an ambush on the decoy wagons, not these ones. Oh, Keyoke. Can’t you hear the ominous music playing in the background?
Actually, he can, because he’s just that good. Keyoke’s scouts bring word to him that there is a Minwanabi army massing both ahead of them and behind them. Trap ahoy.
There’s only one way out—a narrow mountain pass, too tight to allow the silk wagons through, but by heading that way they might survive the coming attack long enough to let Lujan come and join them. With reluctance, Keyoke prepares to ditch the silk wagons now on the grounds that they have fighting to do, and the silk will be lost either way. His men are angry at the very idea of abandoning the goods that they are honour-bound to defend. But Keyoke is thinking of the bigger picture.
Mara must be warned. She needs to know that their intelligence has been compromised.
Speaking of compromise, Keyoke sets his men to hide as much of the silk as they can (about a third) in the crevices of the rocks, so that it might be reclaimed later. They move on from there until it comes time to ditch the wagons entirely. Keyoke leaves a team of volunteer archers there, to hold the Minwanabi off and defend the wagons (and the mouth of the canyon) as long as possible.
He also orders his remaining men to carry what silk they can, on the grounds that it’s better used to stop arrows than falling too easily into the hands of the enemy. He sends Wiallo, one of his trusted men, on the all-important mission to tell Mara what they are about to do (and that he will burn the silk when the Minwanabi break through rather than let the enemy profit from it) but most importantly that there is a spy in their house.
Keyoke and his soldiers march through the canyon all night, until they reach the place where they can camp, and build a barricade in preparation for their last stand. The silk is stacked, ready to burn if necessary. They eat, and drink, and wait. Keyoke gives orders to the servants including the cooks that when the Minwanabi break through in the final stages of the battle he knows is coming, they are to throw the burning brands to destroy the silk, and to throw themselves at the enemy so that they will be forced to give them honourable deaths by the blade.
The servants are distressingly enthusiastic about this plan. Oh, you Tsurani.
Elsewhere, Lujan is having a far more boring time escorting the fake wagons to market, even though he is expecting an ambush upon himself and his men. His army is larger and better equipped than the men Keyoke has with him because of this expectation.
The battle is overdue, and every instinct Lujan has is screaming at him that something is very wrong.
One man appears, beaten and half-dead. He swears he has a message for Lady Mara, and while Lujan does not recognise him, the man gives the appropriate countersign for one of Arakasi’s spies: “Akasis bloom in my lady’s dooryard; the sharpest thorns protect sweet blossoms.”
(Oh Arakasi you adorable romantic)
The servant, Kanil, is wounded and babbling, claiming to have been tortured. Lujan is not sure whether to trust him or not—and then Kanil realises to his horror that this is the false caravan. The only way he could know that is if he was told by Mara, Arakasi, Lujan or Keyoke—but Kanil offers another explanation. The Minwanabi know everything. They boasted of the deception while they tortured him—and he knows exactly when and where they are going to attack the true silk caravan with three hundred men.
Desperate to rescue the man he thinks of as a father, and to prevent this disaster from falling on the house of his beloved mistress Mara, Lujan sends word to the Acoma estate, and splits his company in half—he himself will lead the support troops to try and reach Keyoke before it is too late.
At dawn in the canyon, the Minwanabi storm Keyoke’s barricade, four men at a time. It is easily defensible for the Acoma, and wave after wave of Minwanabi soldiers are cut down—but they have the numbers to spare.
At one point, a severed head is thrown down to them from above—it belonged to Wiallo, the man Keyoke sent to warn Mara of the impending trap. The head is accompanied by a scrap of rope to indicate that he was hanged ignobly rather than dying by the sword.
The battle progresses painfully throughout the day. The Minwanabi soldiers coming against the barricade now flaunt their house colours of orange and black instead of pretending to be “bandits.” The Acoma have eleven soldiers dead and seven wounded so far, but Keyoke estimates the Minwanabi have lost as least ten times as many.
Still they come. By the middle of the day, that estimate has risen to three hundred dead Minwanabi. But they have no way of knowing how many companies have been sent against them, and the enemy have now taken to shooting arrows down into the ravine from above as well as assaulting the barricade.
By sundown, Keyoke has less than half the people he started out with—only forty soldiers and twenty servants on their feet. The fighting continues long into the night—and in the early hours, Keyoke is shot in the knee by an arrow. He orders his men to push the arrow through entirely, despite the pain, knowing that it is unlikely he will live long enough to regret a festering knee wound.
Exhausted and in pain, his greatest regret is that he did not do more to train the next generation of Acoma Strike Leaders up to understand what is required to lead the Acoma’s military force—to replace him properly.
Two hours before dawn, the Minwanabi finally break through the barricade and invade the canyon. Believing all that is lost, Keyoke prays to the Red God as he falls…
COMMENTARY: Oh, Keyoke. I want to knit you a blanket and make you a hot cup of tea.
In a book that has largely consisted so far of administrative meetings and snogging, this chapter stands out powerfully for its relentless description of battle from the slow, tentative build up and anticipation to the flat out grind of fighting until there is nothing left.
Keyoke has only briefly held the point-of-view role before now, and this chapter is mostly about him, how his mind works, and his long experience in the field. I particularly appreciated the way that the authors show how much of warfare is about waiting, planning and predicting what is to come rather than just the sword-swinging part.
There is no shortage of sword on sword action here either, though, and the intensity and importance of the battle is brought out in telling details rather than dwelling on the ongoing violence—the deaths are calculated calmly by the numbers most of the time, because that’s how Keyoke sees it, but the occasional shocking moment such as the severed head of Wiallo or the visceral reality of Keyoke’s arrow to the knee makes it clear that this is no walk in the park.
Keyoke’s calm, methodical perspective and his long experience in the field is laid out from the beginning, but the chapter shows the slow descent of his camp into chaos as time and the constant fighting wears away at them all.
Considering that there are times in which these books have utilised quite gratuitous violence for shock effect (Desio’s dancing priests of murder, I am looking at you), I appreciated how well this chapter balanced the necessary bloodshed and sword fighting with intellectual and emotional ramifications of the battle.
The big question, of course is—is this it for Keyoke? Will Lujan make it in time to save what’s left of his troops, or will he arrive to be likewise slaughtered?
No, we can’t have that, that would mean that Desio made a sound strategic decision! Let’s not enable Desio by making him think he’s remotely good at anything…
(Peeks ahead to the next chapter to see if Keyoke is actually dead.)
Tansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy has a PhD in Classics, which she drew upon for her short story collection Love and Romanpunk. Her latest fiction project is Musketeer Space, a gender-swapped space opera retelling of The Three Musketeers, published weekly as a web serial. Come and find her on Twitter!